Portugal’s mix of the medieval and the maritime makes it a superb place to visit. A turbulent history involving North Africa, Spain and Napoleon has left the interior scattered with walled towns topped by castles, while the pounding Atlantic has sculpted a coast of glorious sand beaches.
Comparatively short distances mean that you get full value for road trips in Portugal. Less time behind the wheel means more time to absorb the atmosphere of the places you visit. Here are seven of Portugal’s best road trips.
Atlantic Coast surf trip
Start – Praia do Guincho; End – Praia do Pedrógão; Distance – 139 miles (223km)
Surfers will love Portugal’s wave-lashed western coast © furtaev / Getty Images
If endless crashing surf sounds like your idea of heaven, you’ve come to the right country. Get ready to ride the big ones on Portugal’s wild, wave-lashed west coast – an alluring mix of first-rate (and inexpensive) surf camps, gleaming white towns with authentic seafood restaurants, golden beaches fringed by dunes and pines, and memorable sunsets. Surfers and kitesurfers of all levels are in their element on Portugal’s sparkling Atlantic coast. There are plenty of small towns to explore for a day or two along the way. Highlights include the popular beach town and surfer hotspot Peniche, the gorgeous swoop of sandy beach in Foz do Arelho and the big-wave town of Nazaré.
Douro Valley vineyard trails
Start – Porto; End – Miranda do Douro; Distance – 222 miles (358km)
Terraced hillsides and the sparkling River Douro make the Douro Valley one of Portugal’s most stunning regions © Hermitis / Shutterstock
The Douro is a little drop of heaven. This Unesco World Heritage region is hands down one of Portugal’s most evocative landscapes, with mile after swoon-worthy mile of vineyards spooling along the contours of its namesake river and marching up terraced hillsides. Go for the food, the fabulous wines, the palatial quintas (countryside villas), the medieval stone villages and the postcard views on almost every corner. Stop at the picturesque terraced vineyards at Quinta do Crasto or sample the world’s best port in the rolling hillsides of Pinhão. Just 2.8 miles (4.5km) from Pinhão is the stunning Casal de Loivos where, from the miradouro (viewpoint), the uplifting vista renders the Douro in postcard format, taking in the full sweep of its stone-walled terraced vineyards, stitched into the hillsides and fringing the sweeping contours of the valley, and the river scything through them.
Alentejo and Algarve beaches
Start – Vila Nova de Milfontes; End – Cacela Velha; Distance – 225 miles (360km)
Praia da Amoreira is a sandy paradise in Aljezur © Franz Walter / imageBROKER RF / Getty Images
Portugal’s southern coasts offer a Mediterranean ideal, with fragrances of pine, rosemary, wine and grilling fish drifting over some absolutely stunning beaches. Only this isn’t the Med, it’s the Atlantic, so add serious surfable waves, important maritime history and great wildlife-watching opportunities to the mix. This drive takes in some of the finest beaches in the region and explores the intriguing towns, which conserve their tight-knit North African street plans. Highlights include Aljezur’s sandy paradise of Praia da Amoreira, the hulking and forbidding fortress of Fortaleza de Sagres and the vibrant and touristy town of Lagos.
Medieval jewels of Portugal’s southern interior
Start – Lisbon; End – Mértola; Distance – 450 miles (720km)
Start a southern Portugal road trip in Lisbon © Sean3810 / Getty Images
This drive takes you from Lisbon, Portugal’s romantic capital, through landscapes softened by cork-oaks and pine. Hearty inland cuisine adds to the authentically Portuguese experience. Along the way, stop off for a little adventure at Óbidos, with a gorgeous historic center with cobblestoned streets and flower-bedecked, whitewashed houses livened up with dashes of vivid yellow and blue paint. When you reach the town of Tomar, be sure to look up to admire the Knights of Templar’s magnificent Convento de Cristo. Later on, delve into history at the beautifully preserved medieval town of Évora.
Landscapes of the Minho
Start – Guimarães; End – Peneda; Distance – 135 miles (217km)
Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês is the final destination on this road trip through the Minho © Jorisvo / Getty Images
Portugal’s northwestern corner is made for road-tripping, with its trilogy of splendid medieval cities, spirit-lifting pilgrimage sites and dune-flanked Atlantic beaches. Brace yourself for rolling landscapes and cultural highs. Begin this road trip in Guimarães, where Afonso I was born in 1110, a Unesco World Heritage site that hides one of the most exquisitely preserved medieval centers in the country. The road trip ends at Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês in Peneda, one of the park’s most stunning mountain villages and the serra’s namesake. A few highlights include Braga, Portugal’s most devout city, home to the country’s oldest cathedral dating back to 1070. Viana do Castelo – Costa Verde’s biggest stunner – is a double shot of medieval center and gorgeous beaches while Ponte de Lima features the finest medieval bridge (the 31-arched Ponte Romana) in all of Portugal.
Start – Santa Comba Dão; End – Seia; Distance – 94 miles (151km)
The Dão is off-the-beaten-track Portugal in a nutshell. Get ready to slow tour the country’s rural heartland, an enticing ensemble of vineyards, pine and eucalyptus woods, family-run wineries and whitewashed villages full of sleepy charisma. Cellar tours, manor house sleeps, hearty meals with beefy red wines and hikes in the wilds of the country’s highest peaks in Serra da Estrela all await. Carregal do Sal is home to Quinta de Cabriz, the headquarters of Dão Sul, one of the region’s foremost wine producers, where 38 hectares (94 acres) of vines fan out from an 18th-century manor house. Here you can stock up at the wine boutique, savor regional dishes expertly paired with wines in the restaurant, enjoy a tasting or join a guided tour of the vineyards. In Santar, visitors head to Paço dos Cunhas de Santar, a 17th-century estate, where you can tour the vineyard before a tasting of its noble wines and olive oils, which go nicely with the seasonal, creative takes on regional cuisine in the contemporary restaurant.
Highlands and history in Portugal’s interior
Start – Coimbra; End – Mata Nacional do Buçaco; Distance – 480 miles (770km)
Stop off to enjoy the incredible setting of the charming mountain village of Manteigas © Wu Swee Ong / Getty Images
This wide-ranging trip takes in many Portuguese historic highlights, from the buzzing university town of Coimbra to stern borderland fortresses, intermingled with picturesque villages and the natural majesty of the Serra da Estrela. Highlights along the journey include the mountain town of Manteigas, which enjoys a spectacular natural setting cradled at the foot of the beautiful Vale do Zêzere, with high peaks and forest-draped slopes dominating the horizon in all directions. The stunning village of Monsanto towers high above the surrounding plains. A stroll through its steeply cobbled streets, lined with stone houses that seem to merge with the boulder-strewn landscape, is reason enough to make the drive. Viseu has a well-preserved historical center that offers numerous enticements: cobbled streets, meandering alleys, leafy public gardens and a central square – Praça da República, aka the “Rossio” – graced with bright flowers and fountains.